Stem Cell Research
What are stem cells?
Stem Cells are crucial for the development of organisms. They are nonspecialized cells which have the potential to create specific cells like blood-, brain-, tissue- or muscle-cells. They are used extensively in research and medical treatment. Research into the potential uses and effects of stem cells is still relatively new, but represents an area with great potential for humankind.
What is embryonic stem cell research?
Embryonic stem cells are derived from a 4 to 5-day-old human embryo. These are usually, though not always, embryos that have been created by but not used in IVF treatment—called ‘supernumerary IVF embryos’. The only way to access embryonic stem cells is to remove the inner cell mass of the embryo. This leads to the destruction of the embryo, and therefore the ending of a human life.
The suggested advantage of using embryonic stem cells, from a scientific point of view, is that they are relatively plentiful, easy to grow in a lab and can develop into any type of cell in the body. However, there are disadvantages beside the ending of a human life. These include embryonic stem cells not being genetically matched to the individual receiving them, so there is a potential of rejection by the recipient body, leaving the recipient worse off than before. Also if a cell does not differentiate into a cell type with a specific function, tumours can grow.
What is adult stem cell research?
Adult stem cells do not just come from adults, but also babies, children and umbilical cord blood. However, they are rare in mature tissues and are difficult to grow in a lab. They typically can’t develop into any type of cell but they can develop into a restricted number of different cell types, which are usually related to the type of tissue they are found in. The advantages of using adult stem cells over embryonic stem cells, apart from the avoiding the destruction of human life, is that adult stem cells can be genetically matched to the recipient, minimising the chance of rejection. There is also less evidence to suggest that cells and tissues derived from adult stem cells will develop tumours.
Is there any benefits to embryonic stem cell research?
For years, those who push embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) have been trying to convince the public of the potential to cure a number of diseases but the reality is that ESCR has produced virtually no scientific or medical breakthroughs.
So there are other options to embryonic stem cells?
Yes, advances in science mean that the difficulties associated with the use of adult stem cells for research and treatment can be overcome. Adult stem cells present no ethical dilemmas for scientists and are continuing to produce astounding clinical results. Scientists have successfully transformed regular adult cells into stem cells using genetic reprogramming. By altering the genes in the adult cells, researchers can reprogram the cells to act similarly to embryonic stem cells.
This new technique may allow researchers to use these reprogrammed cells instead of embryonic stem cells and prevent the risk of genetic incompatibility or immune rejection, and their harvesting involves no loss of human life.